As international calls for justice for Bethlehem mount again at Christmastide, Australian church leaders returned from a visit to their region have added their voices to those supporting the beleagured city of Jesus' birth.
Their pastoral letter calling for peace and fairness for all in Israel-Palestine, an open Jerusalem, and support for cooperation among the faiths was issued to the world media today, having been written in Bethlehem on 12 December 2007.
In full, it reads as follows:
In December 2007 a delegation of nine Australian Church leaders visited Jerusalem and the Holy Land to:
* meet with and express friendship and support for Christians in Palestine and Israel;
* meet with Jewish and Muslim faith leaders and representatives of the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority; and
* help Australians more fully understand and respond to the situation in Israel and Palestine.
It was a profound privilege to visit Palestine and Israel. We felt very welcome and safe, and greatly appreciated the friendship and hospitality extended to us. We consulted widely, visiting the Old City of Jerusalem, West and East Jerusalem, Hebron, Jenin, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and refugee camps where churches are providing humanitarian support. We met with Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, Israeli government and Palestinian National Authority representatives, and civic and human rights leaders.
We have been encouraged by international efforts toward a just peace renewed at Annapolis, and by the desire for negotiations between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority.
We were distressed to hear Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, relate the suffering and fear experienced daily by large numbers of their people. We saw and heard evidence of systematic harassment, physical and psychological oppression, widespread unemployment, poverty, and economic deprivation, resulting directly or indirectly from Israeli military occupation of the West Bank. Their suffering compels us to respond, and we assure Palestinians of our compassion and concern.
We visited Yad Vashem and laid a wreath in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. We heard of Israeli grief and pain resulting from violent attacks and continuing fear of terrorist activity. We condemn all acts of terrorism and assure Israelis of our compassion and concern.
We recognise the complex nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We strongly affirm the right of both Israel and Palestine to political autonomy, security and self-determination. We join with a large majority of the people of Palestine and Israel in longing for a just and lasting peace. We understand the reluctance to make concessions or to trust those who are the source of fear and oppression, but the time for courageous and inspiring leadership has come.
In the light of what we have seen and heard during this visit, we support actions to enable Israel and Palestine to negotiate just outcomes on borders, settlements, water, refugees, prisoners, Jerusalem, and security.
We are particularly concerned by the imprisonment of teenagers, mothers with dependent children, and those detained without trial for long periods. We encountered the debilitating effects on the Palestinian economy and impacts on daily life of the segregated road system, the proliferation of checkpoints and road blocks throughout the West Bank, restrictions on movement of people and goods, and the effective isolation of Palestinian communities from one another. We were repeatedly told that these matters stand in the way of a just peace.
We are heartened by important signs of hope in the face of persistent difficulties. The emergence in Jerusalem of the Council for Religious Institutions promises greater understanding and cooperation among Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders and communities. Human rights organisations in both Palestine and Israel undertake significant and sometimes dangerous work with courage and passion. Vibrant educational and cultural initiatives are evident in oppressed communities and refugee camps.
We ask Australian Churches to:
* pray for a just and lasting peace for Jerusalem and the Holy Land;
* encourage the Australian Government to take more action to support a just and lasting peace for Israel and Palestine;
* hear the stories of the suffering and oppression, perseverance and hope of the people of the Holy Land;
* sponsor aid and development projects in the West Bank and Gaza;
* support the status of Jerusalem as an open city for all faiths and peoples;
* encourage Australian Christians to visit the Holy Land and foster relationships with Palestinian Christians;
* build stronger relationships with Jewish and Muslim communities in Australia.
Our common humanity and legitimate desires for security and freedom can drive the peace process forward. We are confident that a just and lasting peace for Palestine and Israel can be realised.
As Christmas approaches, we look to the future with hope, confident in God’s promise of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace.
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace!” (Luke 2:14 NRSV)
Bethlehem, 12 December 2007
+ Archbishop Phillip Aspinall – Primate, Anglican Church of Australia, and Archbishop of Brisbane
Rev Rod Benson – Ethicist, National Council, Baptist Union of Australia
Dr Kevin Bray – National Council, Churches of Christ in Australia
+ Archbishop Francis Carroll – Roman Catholic Archbishop emeritus, and Immediate Past President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference
Rev Terence Corkin – Assembly General Secretary, Uniting Church in Australia
Lyndsay Farrall – Presiding Clerk, Australian Yearly Meeting, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)
Rev Gregor Henderson – President, Uniting Church in Australia
Rev John Henderson – General Secretary, National Council of Churches in Australia
Rev Merrill Kitchen - National Council, Churches of Christ in Australia